16 November, 2015

Winter makes you laugh a little slower…

I’ve been remiss in blogging as winter settles in here in the piedmont. Part of that is starting on the hard part of work with my shrink and desensitizing myself to all the terrible memories I brought home from the war in the hopes of achieving something more like sanity. It’s tiring. Part of it is that, well, fall and winter don’t bring a heck of a lot of news, especially when compared to the dramas of spring and summer.

Still, there’s a few noteworthy things going on! For instance, we have Mr Piggy Bank the teeny tiny boar and Maggie the tiny pig staying. They may end up being here forever, or may go home if their previous person gets her fences pig-proofed. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable.

Two small pigs cuddling in the sun. Closest to the camera is the tiny boar, who is about 10 inches tall standing, or half the size of the sow. He's golden with black spots, she is white with black spots.

The sheep are all getting woolier every day. I give them little pep talks about growing nice fleeces. Most interestingly, Jane the Soay ewe is growing in her fleece with a substantial amount of white sprinkled in it, like roaning on a horse or goat, so yarn spun from her wool will be naturally heathered.

There’s even a little excitement in the vegetable world. While the einkorn wheat has gone dormant for the winter, the pregnant onions that I’m getting established into a permanent onion patch are still growing like the blazes.

Onion tops ranging between two and six inches tall growing in thick, enthusiastic clumps.

I broke off the tips of some of the tallest greens for us to taste and they’re amazing, sweet and spicy and flavorful. I can’t wait to actually try a couple onions next summer, although large harvests will have to wait a while unless the onions go really nuts. Pregnant onions are an old, old variety grown before the advent of easy to purchase seeds. The large onions will spawn young onions, which will grow into large onions the next year and split off into their own children. They can be harvested at either stage, as long as you leave enough in the ground to propagate.

The garlic got planted a couple months later than onions, but is coming up anyway in its bed of composted rabbit manure.

Small, thick green shoots poking up through what looks like dark fine soil with a few recognizable globes of poo.

This is nothing fancy, just the California Early Soft Neck garlic you find in grocery stores. In fact, it’s cloves from a grocery store bulb, as I thought I should experiment with cheap garlic before I try growing one of the more fiddly heritage varieties. Still, freshness makes a serious difference, and a bulb of garlic dug five minutes ago has a far superior flavor to one that’s been stored, as we learned after managing to grow one bulb on our first try. As it turns out, the feed store was setting us up for failure selling seed garlic in spring. This really is a fall-planted crop, and in summer will be adding its deliciousness to home-cooked meals.

Things I don’t have pictures of include the expanded rabbitry. The colony is a no-go right now, having had ducks move in this past summer (long story, but not on purpose). Duck feces in the soil are not compatible with successfully raising litters of rabbits, so right now I’m working with a standard caged system and working on building tractors so rabbits can move around more and do a little grazing while the colony gets dug out and planted and rested in the hopes that I can return rabbits to it in spring or summer. Meanwhile two of my friends hooked me up with breeding stock, and there will be purebred Silver Foxes for pelts and meat starting this winter. Which means I need to get on tanning the hides I’ve already accumulated!

Meanwhile of course, late fall/early winter Virginia means the weather is all over the place and my mysterious chronic pain condition and migraines are complaining about it. I spend a lot of time sitting in the sun with the goats and sheep and pigs, soaking up the last of the warmth and enjoying my little peaceable kingdom.

28 September, 2015

Fall growth is coming along

We had a soggy week here last week, so the fall-planted food, forage, and cover crops are growing like, well, weeds. Cool, most weather means our friends the decomposer fungi are coming out to play!

A broad-capped white mushroom surrounded by young grass, legumes, and brassicas.

The primitive einkorn wheat I planted is thrilled with the fall weather, and doubles in size overnight. Here it is as newborn leaves.

Tiny, delicate blades of green wheat leaves standing straight and about an inch and a half tall.

Even trees are getting in on an early fall burst of growth, as this baby sassafras tree demonstrates.

A six inch tall a sassafras tree with a bushy growth of green-gold leaves. Some leaves are shaped like pointed ovals, some like mittens, and some are divided into three lobes.

The late summer/early fall burst of activity from the vegetable world always raises my spirits, despite the number the cool, damp weather does on my pain levels. The grasses and trees will grow until the frost nips them, then sleep until spring when they’ll put on a wild, celebratory burst of growth and become flush and heavy with seeds.

Some time in April, before the wheat harvest, the front grazing area with its ample supply of sunshine will be ready for its first grazing, just in time for spring lambs to really start wanting solid food. I’m looking forward to it, and clinging to the way this small fall growth boom reminds me that spring will come.

11 September, 2015

Like God’s Own Mercy

O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of my favorite movies, and it gives the devil the best line in it. He has the heroes apparently cornered, and out behind to rain. “Sweet, summer rain,” he says. “Like God’s own mercy.” As I’m writing this, my little corner of the world has just wrapped up three or four weeks without rain. Things were getting scary dry out there except under the heaviest of layers of fallen leaves under complete tree canopies, where the sunlight never touches except in winter.

We lost an expected month of grazing to the hot, dry weather. We rotate the sheep, goats, and now pigs through three different areas, so that each one gets at least four weeks to recover between bouts of grazing. With the lack of rain, however, the next one in line couldn’t recover in time, so we’ve moved them to what will effectively be their winter dry lot already. They’re not complaining since they have plenty of hay and the area is well-shaded by oaks and the barn, allowing them to beat the August heat. I’d have been happier with them getting some last green forage in, though.

After the weeks and weeks of heat, baking the previous topsoil to dust after the more tender ground covers died, this rain really does feel like mercy. I’m not ashamed, just mildly sheepish, to admit I went outside to let it fall on my skin and listen to what I swear was a collective sigh of relief from the world at large. I swear the trees were smiling if you watched closely enough, and maybe the beech out front will decide to hang onto those last few leaves.

I’m looking forward to seeing one last burst of green before the summer ends, and to finally getting my fall crops into damp, welcoming soil. I’m happy I won’t have to water the grounding rods for the electric fence for at least a few days (the forecast says yet more rain! It feels slightly decadent). I’m looking forward to seeing the pigs wallow in mud instead of taking dust baths, leaving what my friend Elisha calls “mud angels” behind.

The fall rains are such a nice way to round out the year, at least until the weather gets cold and things start feeling clammy. It’s one last burst of activity from people and plants alike before we enter the long dark cold of winter. It’s the last opportunity for animals to fatten themselves up, something less urgent for my domesticated livestock than it is for rabbits, birds, and squirrels…yet the impulse is still there. The goats are growing longer, thicker coats. The hair sheep are getting woolly, and the wool sheep are getting woolier.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to break out the seeds and the trowel, though. For tonight, I’m happy to lie back and listen to the sound of mercy.

9 September, 2015

Pregnant Onions, Grains, and Greens

Thanks to the kindness of my Patreon supporters and some folks who picked up seeds from my wishlist, fall planting is about to kick off.

Well, technically it already kicked off when I planted wheat that had grown from spilled chicken scratch, but then the black hen brought her clutch of babies out into the world and they’ve been industriously hunting every. Last. Seed. I planted back there. I don’t have the heart to run them off it with the hose since they’re such cute little puffballs, so I’m giving up for now. I also scattered some other forage seed on the grazing areas, including dormant alfalfa, forage rape, and some clovers to help fix nitrogen in the poor soil. I never go too heavy planting any one variety, since I prefer the goats and sheep to get a varied diet of weeds, grasses, brassicas, and legumes.

A glossy black hen, her feathers showing off their iridescent green sheen, kicks through waste hay alongside her eight tiny chicks -- five black, three yellow with brown stripes down their backs.
The black hen and her babies, hard at work destroying my tiny wheat field.

But I digress! I was talking about planting food for humans. I’ve ordered pregnant onions, a multiplier onion variety that doesn’t require me to plant from seed every year. Instead, you plant the small onions. They’ll grow up to be big onions and spawn more little onions. You can of course eat either big or little onions, as long as you’re mindful of leaving enough to make new onions.

I also ordered kale seeds, which should offer us fresh greens even through the winter, peas (They may not flower, in which case we’ll eat the tips of foliage and young leaves), and white einkorn wheat. Along with the beet and turnip seeds we already have, the garden will hopefully feed us more this fall and winter than it did this summer after the disastrous goat invasion.

A close-up of a the face of a brown goat with a white stripe down the middle of his face. He has a stick taped across his elegant black horns, and is peering up into the camera.
Frankie looks innocent, but was a cheerful participant in the destruction of our strawberry bed.

The einkorn wheat is almost as exciting as the multiplier onions. It was a staple of agriculture back when my Soay sheep were cutting edge wool growers. Compared to modern wheat it has less gluten and more protein. In fact, some folks who can’t tolerate modern wheat varieties can handle einkorn just fine. Einkorn is, however, apparently an absolute bugger to thresh, requiring vigorous flailing. I suspect either I’ll have a threshing party or we’ll end up leaving it in the hull and using it for feed. I’m all right with either eventuality. And I’m definitely planting it in the front garden, where it should remain unmolested, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (and the goats and poultry don’t rebel).

I was going to pick up a mushroom spawn kit to establish in the straw mulch on the getting garden beds, but decided to splurge on a book instead. There’s always next month, the piedmont climate is quite kind and we have plenty of time before the cold kicks in.

10 August, 2015

Planting for Fall

It’s still quite warm here in the Virginia piedmont, but nonetheless the days are growing shorter. That means time to start thinking about all kinds of cool weather crops: the ruminants are getting hormonal, soon my rabbit buck will no longer be heat sterile, and it’s time to start getting fall crops in the ground.

Due to some unfortunate fencing failures in late spring, the goats demolished the garden. On the one hand the relentless destruction of everything we planted was incredibly discouraging, but on the other the garden got a fallow season and we’re starting with a blank slate.

Cool weather crops we can put in the ground now include the delicious and useful peas, greens such as kale, collards, and lettuce; hardy root vegetables such as beets and turnips; and over-wintering crops, among them grains, garlic, leeks, and old-fashioned multiplier onions I want to establish in a permanent location.

The peas will be done shortly after the first frost, but after a light frost the collards will be at their most sweet and delicious. The over-wintering crops will grow a little and then slumber the winter away, while root vegetables will hang on until the first hard freeze. Kale and leeks will keep going all winter with a little care, as will lettuce if I decide to plant it. Nothing beats the winter blues like a fresh salad, after all! Fresh greens also make a nice treat for the goats and sheep, who will be on dry lot all winter so we can reseed the grazing areas and let them recover from a long productive season.

Farming even on a small scale like I do it requires a split vision, constantly assessing the needs of the present while simultaneously planning at least one season out. Here at the tail end of summer that means monitoring hormonal livestock to ensure the males survive the breeding season and preparing garden beds while making sure female livestock gets adequate nutrition to carry a pregnancy to term and raise healthy offspring and we have a solid plan for what to put in the beds starting early next month.

If a fox hadn’t relieved us of half the poultry flock earlier this year we’d also be looking at selecting roosters for slaughter. As it is we’ll up the grain ration for ducks, geese, and turkeys, to get them nice and big by the time the holiday harvest rolls around. There’s also a pile of guinea keets and Old English Game bantam chicks in the brooder. Guinea fowl have proven themselves incredibly useful in controlling insect pests, and we find that OEGB hens make some of the best broody hens and mothers. Next spring when these birds are grown up, we’ll stick them on nests of full-size eggs to increase our flock size.

18 November, 2014

Grains: Reducing the Carbon Burden

This year we grew wheat accidentally. At least, I’m pretty sure it was wheat. It sprang up around where we’d had some young chickens clearing up garden beds for us, obviously the leftovers from their food. Daniel and I had an excellent time watching it grow, harvesting it, and threshing it.

In addition to the accidental wheat, we tried out Umbrella Sorghum this year, an heirloom variety selected for sugar production that nonetheless produces heavy heads of grain. It grew well despite a three-week rain gap at a critical stage, and I got one good harvest out of it before the goat does escaped their pen and ate all the remaining grain heads.

For next year we have a pile of spring-planted grain varieties to try, and of course I’ll be planting sorghum again since the goats endorsed it so enthusiastically. One of the major outside inputs for us is concentrated livestock feed in the form of scratch grains for the poultry and pelleted grain for the goats. We can’t afford to feed them organic foods, so these inputs are adding substantially to our overall carbon burden. If we can start producing a significant amount of grain on our own, then we can reduce that along with our feed bill. Plus it would be pretty neat to make our own flour for cooking, presuming we can ever afford a hand-powered mill.

Growing grains also provides a lot of other benefits for us. Their root systems help break up the compacted clay subsoil on the property and leave significant amounts of organic matter to improve the soil. Straw from wheat, rye, barley, and triticale can be used for animal bedding or to return atmospheric carbon to the soil via our compost heap, balancing out all the lovely nitrogen our goats and rabbits provide in the form of manure. Rabbits can eat the leaves of corn and sorghum (provided the sorghum hasn’t acquired toxicity by being drought-stressed like ours was this year), and goats relish the stalks of both, providing more feed that we didn’t have to buy.

Conventional grains are also amazingly space-efficient, even when your areas of quality soil are small like ours are. We harvested maybe one square foot of accidentally planted wheat this year, and from that we got a pound of seed which we’ll be planting in February or March. Corn has done less well for us due to pests (our first attempt was eaten by squirrels, this year it was Japanese Beetles who destroyed the crop), but we intend to keep trying, not least because we both really like sweet corn.